Waffles. One of the special moments on this pilgrimage is the welcome at the small village of Brandon, where local Catholics open up their church for an early Mass for us and then serve a delicious breakfast with hot waffles and stewed cherries and thick cream, plus buttered toast and croissants and honey, and big pots of tea…
This is the St John Paul II Walking Pilgrimage to Walsingham, covering fifty miles in three days down lanes and country roads, praying the Rosary, singing, staying overnight on the floors of village halls and schools. It takes place every year on the second weekend of August.
It was all launched by the Dominican Sisters of St Joseph, the “New Forest Sisters”, based near Lymington in Hampshire, in 2005 to honour the great Pope John Paul and to respond to his call for a New Evangelisation. The Sisters are active in youth work – they run all the catechetical programmes for the diocese of Portsmouth – and the John Paul Walk is aimed primarily at young people, although anyone and everyone is welcome to take part. You book your place for a modest fee – which covers administration, meals, etc – and you arrive at Bury St Edmunds in Suffolk on the afternoon of the first day of the pilgrimage, the Thursday.
The town’s great abbey, dedicated to the Saxon martyr king St Edmund, was destroyed by Henry VIII and celebrating Mass in the ruins is a powerful experience. This is where the abbots of England met to draw up Magna Carta. The ruins are now part of a beautiful park; the local authorities are happy to welcome the pilgrims: our singing rings out over the green lawns in the cool evening air, enjoyed by other park users who are strolling about or picnicking, sometimes stopping to watch us or to share in the prayers for a while.
Then we gather in the Catholic parish hall for introductions and supper, with Sisters Julie and Mary Benedicta producing the first of many hearty meals for the 40-plus pilgrims, after which it is time for Evening Prayer in the church, and then bedding down for the night in the parish primary school. We all bring sleeping bags and airbeds. Mine didn’t work properly this year and the floor was hard; I found cushions in the school library and these made for complete comfort.
Next day begins early with Morning Prayer in the church, and a ride to Brandon in a fleet of minibuses and cars, followed by Mass in the small Catholic church there, a delicious breakfast, and the start of the great Walk. Past the pig farms and out towards the open countryside, through the glorious thickly shaded woods and out along past huge fields of golden wheat, we cover 20 miles a day, praying the Rosary and singing. Sister Hyacinthe leads things with a microphone, and this year we had talks centred on the Scriptures and the Catechism. These are so interesting that sore-footed stragglers actually hurry to catch up to listen to them – amusing, challenging stimulating, this is catechesis at its best.
Highlights of the Walk this year were wonderful welcomes in the glorious (now Church of England, of course) medieval churches at Castle Acre and Helhoughton. At St James church at Castle Acre the Anglican parish greeted us with warmth and enthusiasm. It was the feast of St Dominic, a great day of course for the Dominican sisters. And although this had not been planned, it happened that among our pilgrim group was a Franciscan Friar of the Renewal – so we were able to keep up the tradition in which a Franciscan preaches to Dominicans on St Dominic’s Day (and a Dominican to Franciscans on St Francis’ Day). This must have been the first time in 400 years that Mass was celebrated in this ancient church, and a friar preached. We lunched afterwards in the churchyard, enjoying rich fruit cakes baked by the locals, relishing the soft grass under our tired feet. Ten miles on, we slept the night at Swaffham on floors at the big local Catholic school.
Helhoughton greeted us with great kindness, the village hall at our disposal, the vicar of the (Anglican) church waiting for us and glad to have us singing Evening Prayer in the church. Ecumenical co-operation and kindness. What bliss to be sitting with feet in buckets of cold water, telling the vicar of our adventures and enjoying the loveliness of an English village on a summer evening – and then to relish a gin-and-tonic before generous helpings of Sister Julie’s tasty casserole. And so to Walsingham, carrying our banner and an embroidered icon of St John Paul the Great which was placed before the altar.
This is the Catholic Church’s national shrine to Our Lady. It dates back back to the 11th century, when Islam was on the march, and Christians in Europe were fearful of the future. Pilgrims could no longer visit the Holy Land in safety. The lady of the local manor, Richeldis – linked by marriage to the Saxon King Harold – had a vision of Our Lady, and was called to build a “Nazareth in England”. So a complete replica of the Holy House at Nazareth was built on English soil, and for centuries people thonged to pray there – so many that the constellation in the sky that today we call the “Milky Way” was in the Middle Ages known as the Walsingham Way because its myriad of stars looked like the vast crowds of pilgrims who crowded the routes to Walsingham.
Today Walsingham is a tiny village, but in medieval times this whole area was the most prosperous part of England, with the busy port at Abbots Lynn (today King’s Lynn) linking it to the mainland of Europe and the trade with the Hanseatic cities, and with thriving villages and towns that have left us their memorial in the form of their vast soaring churches rich in decorated stonework.
Destroyed under Henry VIII, revived in the early 20th century, Walsingham’s shrine is of growing significance today: Islam and the Middle East again dominate world events, and people feel fear and uncertainty about the future. Calling us to Walsingham, Mary invites us to trust, pray, and work for a new evangelisation of our country. Our sore feet took us up the aisle and the shrine. Rector Mgr John Armitage welcomed us warmly into special places reserved for us as Mass began, our chaplain concelebrating.
“How do you start to re-evangelise Britain?” pondered Sister Hyacinthe in an interview for EWTN, talking about the John Paul Pilgrimage “We thought about it, and of course the only way to start is with prayer. A pilgrimage is all about prayer – prayer together morning and night, daily Mass, prayer as we go along. – and shared feet and smelly clothes and everything else can all be offered up and part of prayer!” And with the prayer comes goodwill, good humour, good companionship – as the weekend finishes with Benediction and tea and drinks-and-the-pub and lingering farewells, no one really wants things to end.
The lure of hot showers and a real rest on a proper bed, the reconnection with necessary obligations of home and work, of family and domestic ties, of emails and responsibilities, all surround our goodbyes. I’m writing this on the train back to London from King’s Lynn. We’ve passed Ely and Cambridge and soon the suburbs will encroach and then the towering office blocks and everyday life. Plenty of good things to do, and I feel renewed in tackling them. I’m taking back the picture of St John Paul to the residential care home where a beloved elderly relative lives. It will hang in place of honour in the hall, with all the 2015 pilgrims’ names on a piece of paper tucked into the back. Next year we’ll go on pilgrimage again.
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